Health communication, genetic determinism, and perceived control: the roles of beliefs about susceptibility and severity versus disease essentialism

J Health Commun. 2012 Aug;17(7):762-78. doi: 10.1080/10810730.2012.677301. Epub 2012 May 10.


This research examined the lay public's beliefs about genes and health that might be labeled deterministic. The goals of this research were to sort through the divergent and contested meanings of genetic determinism in an effort to suggest directions for public health genomic communication. A survey conducted in community-based settings of 717 participants included 267 who self-reported race as African American and 450 who self-reported race as Caucasian American. The survey results revealed that the structure of genetic determinism included 2 belief sets. One set aligned with perceived threat, encompassing susceptibility and severity beliefs linked to genes and health. The other set represents beliefs about biological essentialism linked to the role of genes for health. These concepts were found to be modestly positively related. Threat beliefs predicted perceived control over genes. Public health efforts to communicate about genes and health should consider effects of these messages for (a) perceived threat relating to susceptibility and severity and (b) perceptions of disease essentialism. Perceived threat may enhance motivation to act in health protective ways, whereas disease essentialist beliefs may contribute to a loss of motivation associated with control over health.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • African Americans / psychology*
  • African Americans / statistics & numerical data
  • Aged
  • European Continental Ancestry Group / psychology*
  • European Continental Ancestry Group / statistics & numerical data
  • Female
  • Focus Groups
  • Genetic Determinism*
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease / ethnology
  • Health Communication*
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice / ethnology*
  • Humans
  • Internal-External Control*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Qualitative Research
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Young Adult